Nationals players acknowledge the crowd as they celebrate clinching the NL East Division title Sunday. (Katherine Frey/The Washington Post)
Sports columnist

Stephen Strasburg was first out of the clubhouse and up the dugout steps, and Bryce Harper was right behind him, and that’s just the perfect introduction to the 2017 National League East champions — the two players who best represent the transformation from irrelevant, 100-loss jokes into what the Washington Nationals are now, which is a contender for best franchise in baseball.

Strasburg turned to face what was left of a crowd of 32,627, mostly gathered behind the home dugout, and raised his fist. And here came the rest of the Nationals players, the guys who authored Sunday afternoon's 3-2 victory over Philadelphia and then gathered in the clubhouse to watch the Atlanta Braves come back on the Miami Marlins, the final piece in an on-field party with the fans, then the champagne-and-beer celebration in the confines of the clubhouse.

The players, that’s who gets the credit for this — for four division titles in six years. Deservedly so. Drink it in. Live it up.

“This never gets old,” said Ryan Zimmerman, the team’s first draft pick, the third baseman on the 2012 division winners, the first baseman now. “Adults don’t get to spray champagne and do stupid stuff in public. This is the only place you can do it.”

But there’s no reasonable way to soak in this celebration and not consider what this franchise was not so long ago. A decade ago — “which is a microsecond in baseball,” General Manager Mike Rizzo said — it was a vagabond operation, a non-factor, playing in a town that had to rediscover baseball after a three-decade absence. Now it’s a pillar.

This isn’t just a one-time, feel-good product, not the 2012 team, which won a title for the first time just seven years after the Nationals arrived in town, just six years after the Lerner family bought them out from under the stewardship of Major League Baseball. This is a franchise that, on Sunday, won its 546th game over the past six seasons. The Dodgers are the only team with more. Their total: 547.

Look out. Here come the Nats.

“In the history of baseball,” Jayson Werth asked, “was there a worse free agent destination?”

That’s the point, Jayson. You’re the one who signed with a franchise that, in its first six years in town, had never posted a winning record, had finished out of last place only once. There was the matter of the $126 million the Nats offered, sure.

“But there was a vision,” Werth said. “You got to give credit to the Lerners and Mike Rizzo for what they kind of set out in front of me there during that winter. What they set out was — this,” and he looked out at his teammates drenching each other in beverages.

There were times, though, when that vision seemed somewhere between blurry and delusional. In early 2007, for the first spring training in which the Lerners owned the club, the franchise brought 36 pitchers to Viera, Fla., to try to make the team. Not a single candidate for the rotation had spent the previous season both healthy and on a major league roster. It was the spring of Tim Redding and Jerome Williams, of John Patterson and Shawn Hill, of Matt Chico and Mike Bacsik. One of those has-beens and wannabes was Chris Michalak, then 36 and giving it one last go.

“When I was here in 2007, and that culture of just . . .” and he struggled for a word. Michalak is now the pitching coach for Class AA Harrisburg, part of the Nationals’ player-development machine. So he knows what it was to be a National then and the gap to now.

“As a player, you never expected this,” he said, standing at the edge of the fray Sunday evening. “This wasn’t part of what was real. Now this is what is expected.”

It’s expected because of the players, sure. Strasburg — who was at his best Sunday, eight two-hit innings to bring his streak of scoreless frames to 34 — and Harper were both the top overall picks in the draft, and Max Scherzer was a big-ticket free agent, and Werth established some credibility and on down the line. The list of people who will get credit for this division title — and whatever follows — include Zimmerman and Gio Gonzalez and Wilmer Difo and Dusty Baker and Sean Doolittle and all those other people who wear uniforms, with a postseason story still to write.

But there are, too, Doug Harris and Kris Kline, who head up player development and amateur scouting, respectively. And there are Mark Scialabba and Ryan Thomas and Jeff Zona and Jimmy Gonzales and Mark Baca and Johnny DiPuglia and Dan Jennings and Bob Schaefer and a bunch of other names — too many — you don’t know. That’s fine with them. But there’s also no champagne without them.

“This isn’t a one-man show, a one-department show,” Rizzo said. “This is something where you have to have the infrastructure to have sustained success, and the people we never even talk about are what it’s all about.”

Think about two things: how these Nats are constituted when they’re healthy and the lineup they fielded in a potential clincher Sunday. Their eight regular position players represent the draft (Zimmerman, Harper, third baseman Anthony Rendon and center fielder Michael A. Taylor), free agent signings (Werth, second baseman Daniel Murphy and catcher Matt Wieters) and a trade (shortstop Trea Turner). That’s all cylinders of a scouting and player-development group working to make a playoff team.

But then, Sunday’s lineup: Turner was the only regular. But here was uber prospect Victor Robles making his first major league start — and drilling an RBI double. Here was Difo, now a valuable and versatile contributor, with two hits. And here was Adrian Sanchez, who toiled in the minors for a decade before a call-up this year, driving in the first run with his own double.

“Did you see that lineup that was out there today?” Michalak said. “Come on. I’m sitting in the dugout going: ‘This is awesome.’ I watched those guys for the last three years, and to watch them out there do what they did today? They don’t miss a beat. That’s what player development’s all about.”

So when would-be center fielder Adam Eaton went down in April, Taylor stepped in. When Turner went down in June, Difo stepped in. When Werth went down for months, here came Brian Goodwin.

And now here comes Robles. How fun will it be to watch him try to win a spot on the playoff roster? That’s precisely what he’s here for.

“Now people are coming up out of the woodwork, coming in, stepping in, playing,” Werth said. “We got some really good young talent. It just looks like this place is going to be a good destination, a place for people to come for years on end.”

The players on this team, with Baker at the helm, won this title. And everyone knows there is more to do because for all the successes there have been zero victories in playoff series.

But the only players who have been here continuously, through all the regular season success, are Zimmerman, Werth, Harper, Strasburg and Gonzalez. Yet a largely rotating cast of characters has produced four division titles and those 546 victories.

The Nationals are no longer a joke. Far from it. Celebrate that fact with the players, and brace for whatever October might bring. But know that to crank out these results season after season, it takes countless people we will never know.

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